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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Summer School: Something’s Got to Give

By Mary Jane O’Connell & Kara Vandas — February 19, 2016 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is co-written by Mary Jane O’Connell and Kara Vandas, authors of Partnering with Students to Build Ownership of Learning (spring 2015).

Oh, the joys of summer school...but wait, is summer school joyful? Is it purposeful and intentional? As schools and districts around the country begin to plan for this summer’s edition of summer school, we must ask ourselves some tough questions. Is our program really working? How many students are regular attendees year after year? Do we have evidence that summer school is closing the gap for students or improving the drop-out rate? Most likely the answer is no. In many cases, summer school is an outdated custom that often feels more like punishment or detention for students and teachers alike and less like learning. Then why do we bother? Clearly, Something’s got to give!

Why not turn summer school on its head and redesign it to fit the needs of our students? If the purpose of summer school is to close the gap for students who are struggling or behind, we must consider how to do so during the weeks we have them enrolled and set them on a path to success the following year.

Rethinking the Purpose Summer School
We begin by proposing a new way of thinking aligned to research on accelerating learning for students. Professor John Hattie, author of Visible Learning (2009) and Visible Learning for Teachers (2012) explains that to empower students to rapidly close the gap in their learning, they must be able to answer three essential questions:

  • Where am I going? (the learning goal(s))
  • How am I doing? (progress being made)
  • Where to next? (the next step in my learning)

What if we structured the summer school experience around empowering each student to articulate their progress through the three questions? Would this transform summer school? It is certainly the right beginning, but we can do more.

Next, we must deal with students’ beliefs. Students who have experienced school failure often have negative images of themselves as learners, see themselves as behind, less intelligent than peers, and in a never-ending pattern of struggle. Failure must be seen as a part of the learning process, rather than a judgment of a student’s potential. So before we jump right into learning, we must assess and revise students’ beliefs about themselves as learners? Have we ever begun summer school with the goal of giving each student hope? Have we put plans in place to assess, address, and modify students’ beliefs about learning? Have we structured the summer school experience so each student feels valued, capable and has something to offer others?

We believe this can be addressed by posing three additional student-centered questions as we plan summer school programs:

  • What makes a good learner?
  • What is my contribution to learning?
  • How can I have on-going success in school?

“What makes a good learner?” could be translated into a question students attending summer school will likely be asking, “Why should I care?” According to Kathleen Cushman (2012), students rarely report that they don’t care, rather they report that school failure hurts, and they feel lost. We have to show them how to get un-lost. Getting un-lost begins with understanding what makes a good learner.

In other words, what makes some students successful while others are not? We know that intelligence isn’t fixed, rather it is plastic and malleable (Dweck, 2006) so what characteristics do we want to encourage in students to help them reach their goals? How can knowing what such characteristics are change outcomes for learners? Carol Dweck maintains that a growth-oriented mindset is developed when students are allowed to make mistakes, are acknowledged for effort rather than intelligence, and develop strategies to tackle tasks.

Becoming a good learner gets to the next questions about students’ contribution to the classroom. Good learners contribute to their own learning and the learning of others. We must ask ourselves how to engage the disengaged and help them to see that what they do matters. Many summer school programs ask students to simply show up and quietly complete work. Is this really contributing in a way that will close the gap and empower future learning? Is completing packets the outcome we are all hoping for as a result of summer school?

We must change the paradigm to “Together, we will both expend the effort needed to get you caught up.” We propose defining students’ role in learning includes how they can partner with all learners in the classroom, rather than work in isolation.

The question, What is my contribution?, prepares students to answer the final question and hopeful outcome of summer school, “How can I have on-going success in school?” To make success contagious for students, they have to understand how to be a good learner and contribute to the learning. These are the skills and characteristics of students who can maintain and grow success. How can we help them make a plan for the future, once they have experienced some success in summer school and have closed the gap? We propose that a crucial part of summer school is planning for the following year with students so they come to class on day 1 with a goal, a plan, and the know-how to reach that goal.

What if we restructured the summer school experience whereby every student could provide the evidence to answer these questions?

We challenge you to rethink summer school based on the six questions, and by doing so, revolutionize the experience and the outcome for learners. Change the norm; empower learners.

New Summer School Scenario:

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.